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Ex-Plum teacher pleads guilty, sentenced to prison for sex with student

Matthew Santoni
| Monday, April 18, 2016, 4:36 p.m.
Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri, charged with having sex with a student, is escorted out of the Plum police station in June 2015. (Trib photo)
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri, charged with having sex with a student, is escorted out of the Plum police station in June 2015. (Trib photo)
Joseph Ruggieri, accompanied by a constable, leaves District Judge Linda Zucco's office after a hearing on July 29, 2015.
Lillian DeDomenic | For Trib Total Media
Joseph Ruggieri, accompanied by a constable, leaves District Judge Linda Zucco's office after a hearing on July 29, 2015.
Joseph Ruggieri is escorted out of the Plum Police Station on Monday, June 29, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Joseph Ruggieri is escorted out of the Plum Police Station on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Plum High School teacher Joseph Ruggieri's teenaged victim said she was ostracized from friends, withdrew from family, and even avoided going outside for fear of the victim-blaming and insults she'd face.

“I've taken the heat for something you've done to me. ... I feared going to school for the names I would be called,” she wrote to Ruggieri, who pleaded guilty Monday to having sex with the girl and who closed his eyes or looked at the floor as an assistant district attorney read her letter. “I'm sad to report many have chosen to defend you and attack me instead, calling me a liar and attention-hungry.”

Ruggieri, 41, was the second of three teachers at Plum to be charged with inappropriate sexual contact with their students.

Internal emails examined by the Trib suggest reforms at the school might have taken a backseat to tamping down bad press, ferreting out whistle-blowers and trying to turn police on insiders who talked.

“Our school community continues to be pained by what has taken place between several teachers and students,” the district said in a message posted to its website. “Over the past 18 months, we have taken meaningful corrective actions and measureto implement greater transparency and scrutiny when it comes to teacher-student relations, with particular emphasis on social media and staff awareness of warning signs and reporting requirements.”

School officials stressed the school was a good one. At one point, school board member Richard Zucco noted the district has more than 4,000 students. “Not all our students are bad,” he said.

Ruggieri pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault, corrupting a minor and intimidating a witness before Common Pleas Judge David A. Cashman, who sentenced him to two to five years in prison and five years of probation.

Assistant District Attorney Brian Catanzarite said the two began talking about non-school issues over the phone and through text messages when the victim, a student, was still 17.

They met in Ruggieri's car in a parking lot at a local community college, then met several times at his house to have sex starting in late 2014, Catanzarite said. The girl admitted it to police, who arrested and charged Ruggieri in February 2015.

He was further charged with witness intimidation, first for calling her to discuss her testimony, then later for emailing her from a school-issued laptop with a link to her favorite song and a “story” he wrote that had specific references to their relationship and the words “sweetie, stop running... you can't escape what you truly want,” Catanzarite said.

Ruggieri's bond was revoked in July because of the email, and he has been in the Allegheny County Jail since then.

In her letter to Ruggieri and the court, the victim said she'd been ostracized by her friends and distanced herself from her family because she was trying to hide the fact that she and Ruggieri were having sex, then had to endure victim-blaming and insults when he was charged.

Her mother, in her own statement, said the victim's prom date had dumped her and she'd skipped her graduation ceremony for fear of the ridicule she may have faced walking across the stage.

“I find you and your actions pathetic and deplorable, and your years of conduct incomprehensible,” the mother said.

There were days the victim wouldn't get out of bed or leave the house for fear of what people would say, she said.

Ruggieri, whose attorney maintained that he was a good father and had mentored many students, apologized for the damage he'd done.

“I apologize to the families, my colleagues, friends, even to my profession,” he said. “I'm just very sorry.”

After blasting Ruggieri for his decision to take advantage of his teaching authority over the victim to “satisfy (his) own carnal desires,” Cashman agreed to the plea and its sentence of two to five years in prison. Ruggieri must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and surrender his teaching certificate.

Jason Cooper, 39, pleaded guilty to institutional sexual assault, corruption of minors and witness intimidation in exchange for an 18- to 36-month prison sentence. Former substitute Michael Cinefra, 29, is scheduled for trial April 25 on charges he had sex with a student.

Drew Zoldak, who was charged with witness intimidation for allegedly identifying one of the victims to his class, is scheduled for trial June 7.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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